The Non-Legacy of 9/11

A U.S. flag flies over Ground Zero before the start of ceremonies marking the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, September 11, 2011. (Gary Hershorn / Reuters)
We should be grateful that one horrible day didn’t really change the American spirit.

On September 11, 2001, I stopped at a McDonald’s at 82nd and Broadway around 8:50 to treat myself to an Egg McMuffin ahead of what promised to be an exceptionally dull day downtown: my first day of jury duty. A radio playing in the restaurant (I think it was tuned to WINS-AM, New York’s 24-hour-news station) announced that “a small commuter plane” had struck the north tower of the World Trade Center. Like everyone familiar with the history of New York City, I immediately thought of the B-25 that had hit the Empire State Building in 1945. That tower survived, and wasn’t even that badly damaged. I wanted to believe the World Trade Center crash was just one of those crazy things that happen every day in the city: If it was a “small commuter plane,” perhaps it had been a private flight, and private pilots make lots of crazy mistakes. But the B-25 crash had taken place in thick fog. 9/11 was a spectacularly clear and bright day. How could even a novice pilot accidentally hit the tallest building in New York on a day like that?

Heading down to Centre Street, where my jury duty was to take place, I got off the subway at Chambers Street, six blocks north of the Twin Towers. In the 30 minutes I’d been on the subway, the world had changed. Now both towers were giving off huge amounts of smoke. Clearly this was a coordinated attack, not a “small commuter plane” accident. I stood there gaping with hundreds of others before I walked over to Centre Street to check on my jury duty. Just as a clerk was telling me it was canceled, a sound unlike anything I’d ever heard came in from the street: all New York let out a combination of a shriek and a groan at the same awful moment. The South Tower was collapsing, in cinematic slow motion, floor by floor. Stupidly I thought that enough time had passed since the crash that the towers must have been nearly empty of people by the time of the collapse. It didn’t occur to me that there was so much smoke in both buildings that virtually no one in either impact zone or on the floors above would survive.

At around the same time, my good friend Richard, who worked at Merrill Lynch in what was then the World Financial Center (now Brookfield Place), had a meeting nearby in the complex and was worried about being late. Glancing up, he noticed people jumping out of the Trade Center from high floors. I was too far away to observe this. Yet he hurried on, trying to get into the building where his meeting was. A disbelieving attendant told him that everything was closed and that he should get out of there. Hours later, as he told me this story, the stupidity of his own refusal to abandon his workday had left him shaken up. Belatedly he took the doorman’s advice and got very out of there; a few months later he and his family moved to Spain, and never returned.

After the second tower fell and the city mood turned from panicky to dazed, the most striking image I saw on my long walk back to Midtown, where I worked, was the line of hundreds of people waiting outside St. Vincent’s Hospital in the West Village. They were gathering in a kind of hopeful solidarity to give blood to any survivors who might show up. Very few would, but the spiritedness of New Yorkers under pressure should not be overlooked. The same attitude of defiant, if completely unwarranted, hope was at its most visible when the families of the lost began desperately in the days that followed to post pictures and descriptions of their departed loved ones all over every fence and blank wall in downtown Manhattan. “HAVE YOU SEEN” and “MISSING,” the leaflets shouted and begged, as if anyone who made it out of those buildings would have neglected to report to a hospital or phone home immediately. The flyers took on the feel of unusually detailed grave markers, and — together with the sulfurous, nauseating odor that emanated from the still-steaming pile of rubble and lingered in the air for months, noticeable even six miles away where I lived — they turned all of lower Manhattan into an impromptu mortuary.

There was much talk, that September, about how 9/11 would change our national character. The external effects of that day were obvious and enduring — the overseas wars, the nationalization and hardening of airline security, the rebranding of the presidency of George W. Bush. But I’m not sure there were any lasting internal effects on American culture whatsoever. At the time, some writers actually speculated that irony had died, that we would henceforth be kinder to one another, that everyone had been forced to realize that we were all joined up in the same grand, pluralistic project. Flags were pasted on every subway train. Perhaps, said some on both the left and right, we should institute a mandatory national-service program to cultivate patriotism in our young people.

A year later, Gawker.com debuted, and Americans eagerly discovered a frisky new pastime: setting out to destroy one another’s reputations on the Internet. Around that time, variations on the joke, “If X, then the terrorists have won” began to appear — “If we don’t go to this cocktail party, the terrorists will have won,” “If you don’t share that meatball sub with me, the terrorists will have won,” etc.

I’m glad irony survived, and I’m extremely glad that the Bush administration and Congress did not conspire to create a nightmarish national-service program that would have set fire to untold quantities of time and energy that properly belong to young individuals, not the state. America remains a rumbustious, quarrelsome, and unruly place, characterized by an especial lack of interest in collectivism, and we have retained our world-leading position in irony. I don’t think 9/11 reprogrammed our character at all. If it had, then the terrorists really would have won.

PHOTO GALLERY: 9/11 Attacks


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